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Al Qaeda is one of the most well-known and dangerous Islamic insurgent organization in the world. It was established by a Saudi millionaire, Osama bin Laden, to bring together Arabs who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion. Now, the principal stated goal of al Qaeda is to reestablish the Muslim state by driving Americans and Western influence out of all Muslim nations, especially Saudi Arabia, destroy Israel, and collapse pro-Western countries in the Middle East. Osama bin Laden, leader of al Qaeda said that he wants to unite Muslims all over the world and establish an Islamic nation ruled by Caliphate. Additionally, al Qaeda cooperates with Islamic extremist groups to overthrow regimes that they consider non-Islamic and eliminate Westerns and their influence from Muslim countries. Groups associated with al Qaeda have conducted many violent attacks throughout the world which resulted in thousands of civilians casualties. This paper covers the global and regional impact of the organization, their doctrine and strategy in the past, present, and projected future, as well as their weaknesses and possible counterinsurgency strategies.
What type of insurgency is al Qaeda?
Usually, insurgencies are internal conflicts with the intent of having effect or making change within the borders of a nation. Even though the term insurgency means an organized rebellion aimed at overthrowing a constituted government, nowadays we are facing insurgencies that are larger in their area of operation and influence - Global Insurgencies. However, the concept of global insurgency serves to illustrate the expanded scope of the insurgency but not necessarily its type. So, because Al Qaeda is operating in a level beyond national boundaries, we know that it is for sure Global Insurgency; but, what type of insurgency is it.
To detect what type of insurgency we are facing, first we should be able to clearly understand the insurgent's goals - what they are trying to accomplish. In the case of Al Qaeda, it is clear that the group is extremely separatist. They want to preserve Islamic world (mainly culture and politics) from the so called destructive western influences. They are also called in shaira (Islamic law) and on the Koran for every action they do. As such they do satisfy two features that characterize traditional insurgencies. First, they are emphasizing norms and rules of Islam to legitimize themselves and of course taking advantage of uneducated population to gain their support; and second, they are passively involved in politics. Based on these facts it can be told that Al Qaeda falls in the traditionalist insurgency category. To this end, I would say Al Qaeda does not fit in the mold of historical insurgencies; indeed it falls specifically in the traditional global insurgency because they are trying to overthrow the global rulers, not the national ones.
Global and Regional Impact
Just based on the type of the insurgency al Qaeda falls, it is easy to tell about the global and regional impacts the organization have. Bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and 9/11 attacks along with the bombings in London and Madrid are best concrete example of the global impacts al Qaeda have. The ongoing complains of al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, on the issues of U.S. support to Israel as compared to Muslims in Palestine and Lebanon, and the issue of having no U.S. troops and U.S. influence on Arabian Peninsula, mean that there is something more than this, what they really want. According to Galula's prerequisites for successful insurgency, the cause chosen by al Qaeda fulfills the strategic criteria of a cause (it attracts the largest number of supporters and insurgents identify themselves with the cause) and of course it allows al Qaeda to do tactical manipulation of the cause (not being specific on their requirements). Of course such a cause is something that would eventually lead to the destruction of the world order. Moreover, al Qaeda believes that god wants everyone who does not follow their religious theories to die; thus, theoretically all non-Muslim countries are in risk of being attacked by al Qaeda or maybe its affiliates. But, it is not only non-Muslim countries those who are threatened, al Qaeda want to overthrow all governments of Muslim countries that do not follow Islamic law. The risk becomes even higher when it is argued that al Qaeda is both growing in number of individual people and groups joining to them and other organizations from different parts of the region cooperating with them. According to an article on GlobalSecurity website, al Qaeda has cooperated with a number of known terrorist groups worldwide including:
Armed Islamic Group
Salafist Group for Call and Combat and the Armed Islamic Group
Egyptian Islamic Jihad (Egypt)
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group
Bayt al-Imam (Jordan)
Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad (Kashmir)
Asbat al Ansar
Harakat ul Ansar/Mujahadeen
Harakat ul Jihad
Jaish Mohammed - JEM
Laskar e-Toiba - LET
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (the Philippines)
Abu Sayyaf Group (Malaysia, Philippines)
Al-Ittihad Al Islamiya - AIAI (Somalia)
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
Islamic Army of Aden (Yemen)
Based on the fact that al Qaeda is now cooperating with many terrorist organizations in the region and has lots of affiliates all over the world, tells us that this organization has the capabilities of impacting regional, if not global, security.
Doctrine and Strategy
While analyzing al Qaeda's doctrine and strategy there is a question that emerges, that is: when and how it all started, and how did it evolve. In order to do that, below I will discuss (in terms of doctrine and strategy) the past, present, and the projected future of the organization.
During the war between Afghan and Soviets, U.S. supported Afghanistan by providing training and supplying them with weapons, which were sold in the black market and have been used by terrorists against Western societies. Along the misuse of weapons same happened with the training - it was passed to the al Qaeda and was practiced by its members. Anyway, it was the resistance to the Soviets that eventually led to greater confidence in al Qaeda's way of fighting. Impressed by the victory, they wanted to create terror by killing infidels. So, with the threat from Soviets in mind, the support provided to Afghanistan led up to serious troubles in long term. To sum this up, al Qaeda pretty much knows what we know (in terms of military operations) and this put them a step ahead of any other group with which we have not dealt at all in the past. However, there is something more than just the training, the key that led in al Qaeda's quite successful insurgency - which is elaborated below.
Same as conventional militaries who train and fight according to their doctrine, al Qaeda is fighting the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan according to a doctrine of its own - something that was not adequately appreciated by U.S. and the West. That being said, the al Qaeda's doctrine has been developed starting from the experiences during the Afghan - Soviet war, and continued to build up through the insurgencies on which al Qaeda has been involved. Moreover, al Qaeda enriched their doctrine by adding considerable lessons they have learned from military theoreticians such as Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, as well as from the U.S. and other Western's training manuals. In the next two paragraphs, I will explain how the al Qaeda's doctrine is tied with respect to military.
The central point in which al Qaeda's insurgency doctrine is based in religious obligation. Since the U.S. led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Bin Laden and many Islamist leaders have declared the defensive jihad against the U.S. and coalition forces. Defensive jihad obligates every Muslim to participate by any possible means, including direct participation in war through taking up arms and fighting against their enemy, financial donations or any other form of support. This form of jihad is known to require absolute victory over the infidels and neither half victory nor negotiations are accepted. In addition, al Qaeda's leadership stated that this fight - defensive jihad - should be a united effort of all Muslims rather an attempt of individual people or individual small groups acting in their own. In my opinion, this is one of the major factors of the success of al Qaeda, which, in fact is indicated by its name - the Base - as well. Having combined the religious obligation and the unity of command, al Qaeda provided itself with reliable and obedient soldiers. Thus, the people who joined the cause immediately started to conduct well-planned actions emerging from the Base.
Strategy and operations that depend on conditions and circumstances are yet another important factor of al Qaeda's doctrine. This adaptability among the mujahedins is done based on the past experiences and their results. This means that al Qaeda is constantly changing its doctrine, hence denying U.S. the chance to know them or even train forces to confront al Qaeda. However, the change in al Qaeda's doctrine is being done carefully by considering all aspects of the country and society. This means that al Qaeda's leadership has more than enough knowledge on religion, politics, strategy, military science, planning, administration, and of course psychology.
When trying to predict future of an organization such as al Qaeda, the first thing we should do is to look over the patterns in the strategic level, then make assumptions based on the past and present activities. So, as far as strategy goes, Al Qaeda is a one of the most agile and innovative strategy pursuer I have ever heard of. Apart from being transnational insurgency group, they are employing all the resources at their disposal and then change strategies as they go. First, using their diplomatic efforts, Al Qaeda "forged alliances with like-minded Islamic militants in all corners of the world." (O'Neill, p.65) Next, they used their economic resources to get the support of the population in various areas - supporters in rural areas help them to hide, whereas those in urban areas help them mainly to attack US forces. Yet, another important factor is the focus of Al Qaeda on creating divisions within western alliance by targeting coalition partners, such as attacks on Madrid and London. Finally, because they know that US and partners of coalition are prepared for any attack proceeding from outside-in, now Al Qaeda is trying to recruit people from non-Muslim countries, most desirably from US, so they can blow it up from inside.
Thus, with their most important goal already set - establishing global political system (caliphate) based on its version of Islamic law - they only have to care of attacking their enemy in any possible aspect, as hard as they can and by any possible mean.
Because al Qaeda is an insurgency that committed atrocities, it can be easily argued on many weaknesses. However, I will focus on the political weaknesses and killing of civilians. First, al Qaeda's plan for taking over the territories they claim - Arabian Peninsula - seems to be one way and nowhere-leading road. It is my understanding that because they are disinclined for future transition into politics (keeping other things unchanged) they will end up in the middle of nowhere searching for nothing. They are dependent on the violence and are not willing and able to create their politic party and start seeking for a place in the government. They are not contributing to state building, thus will not get the whole support of the general population. Another weakness is killing of civilians. "Islam bans killing of people. We are creatures of God, and only He can take us away" this is what I, as a Muslim, have been taught by my religious leaders. So, the fact that al Qaeda is doing something that is turn conflicts with its cause, gives us more space to leverage that and benefit from the situation.
Possible COIN Strategies
Al Qaeda cooperates with many insurgent organizations all over the world and that has enables this organization to know a great deal of possible counterinsurgent strategies. Even with that in mind, some strategies just work no matter whether the insurgent organization knows or is prepared for those or not. Such an example is amnesty. If we are about to give the opportunity to leave/exit the organization, many low-ranking members will be willing to leave. Further, this option makes it harder for the organization itself to control its members - because as compared to the option of fighting along al Qaeda or being jailed or dead by the counterinsurgent forces, now the insurgents can chose to get back to their families and to their regular lives.
Along with the option of amnesty, we should pay more attention to psychology of both mass base and insurgents. Al Qaeda used this strategy by saying to people they were about to recruit that it cannot get any worse than getting killed - you either chose to be killed by U.S. and nobody knows, or you have the once-in-lifetime opportunity to join the jihad and even if you get killed you join your jihad brothers in heaven. We need to apply the same principle. Simply, we just say to the parents: "[Y]es you are right! It is a little chance for you to get better life in short term. However, it is your children the ones that will benefit if you start to help your country fight insurgents." In this case everybody would be able to say: "This happened to me, and it did this with me, but I'm able to live with it, to cope with it, and to learn from it. And I want to engage myself in the bright future for my children and the children of my children â€¦" (Missmahl)
Finally, my point of view is that U.S. forces should make some adjustments of concepts of how we fight. Use of retreat and defense as a mean to defeat the enemy would be beneficial since the al Qaeda knows that we do conduct offense and not retreat or defense. In case we do this, al Qaeda would be caught surprised, indicating that it would be easy for us to hit them hard. It is so because U.S. forces have been constantly attacking insurgents, leaving little or no room at all for employment of one of the four fundamentals of attack - surprise. In addition, one needs to sacrifice something to achieve a certain goals. So, I believe we should not focus on force protection as we did in the past and currently are (at some degree), because at the end of the day, we are there to fight and not to protect our force.
Al Qaeda's insurgency has been evolving for about three decades and it is intended to defeat conventional military forces. They want their forces to fight in various terrains, in whatever conditions and still be able to conduct complex actions. Additionally, they have been successfully employing psychological warfare along with propaganda. In summary, the subjects explained in this paper - the global and regional impact of al Qaeda, their doctrine and strategy in the past, present, and projected future, as well as their weaknesses and possible counterinsurgency strategies - lead to the conclusion that even though al Qaeda is well organized and well prepared organization, there are easily employed counterinsurgent strategies that can lead to the collapse of the organization itself and its networks.